TIME FOR A SWITCH: In a stunning announcement, The New York Times Co. chief executive officer Janet Robinson said late Thursday afternoon that she would resign at the end of the month. She has been ceo since February 2004 and has been working at the Times for 28 years. Times chairman Arthur Sulzberger Jr. will be interim ceo as he begins to search for Robinson’s successor.

“Obviously, the last few years have been tough as, together, we have navigated one of the most difficult periods in publishing history,” Robinson, 61, wrote in an e-mail to staffers. “It is probably an understatement to say that transitioning from a traditional print journalism model to the digital world has been an enormous challenge. Fortunately, thanks to a tremendous amount of hard work by many people, The New York Times Company is succeeding. Our balance sheet is strong, and we have a solid business plan and successful digital strategy in place that should serve the company well for many years into the future. I know that I am leaving the company in the best position possible.”

This story first appeared in the December 16, 2011 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

In Robinson’s time with the Times, fortunes dropped dramatically, as advertising and circulation both saw precipitous declines. For the first time in its history, the Times had to cut from its newsroom, which resulted in more than 200 job losses in the last three years. Additionally, the Times had to eliminate sections in the paper, reduce trim size, close a printing press, take out a mortgage on its new skyscraper and take an onerous loan from Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim. The Times Co.’s market cap — today at $1.1 billion — dropped into the hundreds of millions.

Still, there were no indications that Robinson would retire now, and with good reason. Finances at the Times have begun to stabilize. The paper launched a digital subscription plan in March, which has seen solid early returns. The Times paid off Slim well ahead of schedule. The paper has cut far less from its newsroom compared to other newspapers that were once closer in size (the Times now has 1,150 staffers in its newsroom, while the Washington Post has 600 and the Los Angeles Times has 550). Quarterly earnings calls with Robinson recently became a slightly more optimistic exercise (less talk of how the ad market was “challenged” and more about growth in digital and Sunday circulation).

And through the disaster period that was 2008 to 2010 for newspapers, virtually all of Robinson’s leadership team remained intact. There was little she and Sulzberger could do to stop the tsunami that hit every newspaper, and history should look back kindly on how they — at the least — kept the paper alive and retained a more-than-respectable newsroom head count. Sulzberger’s choice for Robinson’s successor will be a critical one for the Times as it contemplates — this seems like a foreign thought — growing its business.

If there was one particularly touchy point among the Times newsroom and Robinson, it was her annual compensation. Even though the Times cut 100 newsroom positions in 2008, Robinson wound up taking home $5.58 million. The following year, the Times cut another 100 jobs and her total compensation ballooned to $6.2 million. It won’t warm the hearts of many Times staffers to read a Securities and Exchange Commission filing released on Thursday as she broke the news of her retirement: She will be paid $4.5 million next year for “consulting services” — close to her base salary for 2010.

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